Purdue robotics team wired for victory | Campus

Tucked in an underground lab of Haas Hall and lined with mechanical fragments, a crowd of robotics enthusiasts cheer as their creation frantically zig-zags across its enclosure under remote control.

The robot will soon compete in the VEX U robotics tournament along with four robot colleagues, all named after wheeled characters in “Bob the Builder.” The group is hoping to add on to the extensive display of steel trophies in the laboratory belonging to SIGBots, a club which runs the two teams representing Purdue at VEX U.

SIGBots, the robotics Special Interest Group (SIG) of Purdue’s Association for Computer Machinery, is preparing for what will be their 12th annual VEX U tournament, according to their website. The qualifying round, the largest VEX U event apart from the World Championships, will be hosted at Purdue on Saturday.

Micah Rassi, a junior at the Polytechnic Institute and president of SIGBots, says his club typically begins preparations for a tournament on the day the previous one ends, while some hardcore members also choose to work throughout the night as a tournament approaches, though that is by no means required.

“There’s a good work-play balance here most of the time, and we all know not to take ourselves too seriously,” said Will Xu, a junior in the College of Engineering.

“There are a ton of ways for people to get involved, and that’s what we pride ourselves on,” Rassi said. “We let students help out in whatever ways they’re interested in.

“Some of our members do have experience and some don’t. Finding people who have never had the ability to compete in robotics in high school and opening them up to that opportunity is really great. ”

Rassi emphasized the ways in which the competitions strengthened participants’ engineering skills.

“Every year they change the game on us and throw new engineering challenges at us,” he said. “It makes us better at problem solving. It’s really easy to get into but really hard to master. ”

With more than 100 active members in the club, working in such a large group helps students learn to delegate tasks and trust each other to do their part, Rassi said.

SIGBots won the World Championship in 2020 and has frequently been victorious at university-level competitions in the Midwest.

In this year’s challenge, “Tipping Point,” two pairs of robots will compete in each match to drop plastic rings onto poles fixed to plastic discs, steal those discs away from each other and balance themselves and the discs on a seesaw.

The game includes periods of autonomous and manual control, and a single-player version of the game is also performed. Additional points are awarded for thorough design documentation and professional presentation. SIGBots’ two teams currently hold the top two positions on the world leaderboard for single-player tasks, according to Rassi.

The club has a multitude of subteams specializing in mechanics, software, electronics, artificial intelligence and strategy. Each subteam occupies the lab at different times of the day, coordinating their work with the help of club officers.

Xu leads the outreach subteam, which develops and maintains the recursively named PROS Robotics Operating System, an open-source code, which he said is used by about 5,000 high school and university students.

The outreach team also maintains a robotics wiki, which Xu said the team originally used to share information internally, but they began publishing it two years ago in order to help other robotics enthusiasts develop their skills during the pandemic.

Both resources are available through the Purdue SIGBots website.

Rassi said outreach projects are a core part of the club’s mission.

“What we do here is not only build robots that compete and win tournaments, it’s also about serving the greater robotics education community,” he said. “We help run high school events and mentor teams.

“It’s fulfilling to give back to those high schoolers around the globe that could use our resources, and I’ve gained a lot of technical skills in doing both the robots and the (PROS) project.”

Robotics education is a source of meaning for young people with special interests, Rassi said.

“I didn’t play sports (in high school),” he said. “Robotics was my sport.”

The VEX qualifying event will be held at the Purdue Memorial Union North Ballroom this Saturday, with up to 15 teams participating, including teams from the Universities of Illinois, Wisconsin and Tennessee.

Competitive matches will run from 9:30 am to 6 pm, according to the Robotics Education Competition Foundation’s website. The event will be live-streamed on the Purduesigbots Twitch channel.

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